The luck of John Rafferty - a masterpiece of folk storytelling

John Rafferty
John Rafferty

I got a phone call out of the blue from Seanchai leader and Black 47 founder Chris Byrne not long ago, and there was a real sense of urgency in the man’s normally deadpan voice.

“I’m sending a guy your way -- you’ve just gotta hear this.”

That guy is John Rafferty, and his new album, Lucky, is a masterwork of folk storytelling.

This Brooklyn native is the outer borough cousin of another tortured Irish tunesmith, Bruce Springsteen, with the songs from Lucky reminiscent of Nebraska, Springsteen’s stark acoustic masterpiece.

A lonesome harmonica riff starts off Lucky as Rafferty paints an urban picture about a run-in with the police.

“Cop in the subway stuck an eye in my cup/he said pour it out Paddy I’ve seen enough,” Rafferty sings on “30 Minutes,” a tune whose chorus “watch me chase the snakes away/I can think of something to say/raise your glass to St. Patrick’s Day” makes it a perfect addition to jukeboxes in Irish pubs worldwide.

“It’s funny you said Nebraska, because that was definitely where I was trying to sail the ship,” admits Rafferty during an interview.

“Springsteen did a left turn on that album after Born in the USA and he came to some common lines on that album. I have some common lines in there as well --common themes and relationships. 

“I always say it’s telling some simple stories through music.  Maybe it’s like reading a book of short stories that might be connected with one another within the book. Same characters; sometimes it’s the same girl, sometimes it’s a compilation of 10 different girls.”

Rafferty has a way with words, painting riveting pictures in his songs.

“My mother was born in Sligo and my dad was an Irish American,” Rafferty explains when asked about his musical background.

“There was no music in our house. I have an older brother who told me, ‘You can listen to these records, but you can’t listen to these.’ Of course, I went to the pile that I couldn’t listen to.

“When I was 12 I was allowed to buy The Who’s Who Are You. I was fascinated by Pete Townshend and all the great writing and playing that came through him. I didn’t understand what he was writing about. Any magazine I could get with The Who in it, I got it.”

Rafferty’s pyrotechnics on the acoustic guitar do not mimic Townshend’s work with the Who, favoring the guitar legend’s stripped down understatement of the Scoop demo series. Rafferty lets the words do the talking throughout Lucky.

“You’re singing your heart out to some empty glass,” he sings on “St. Patrick’s,” a ditty about being down and out. The sparseness of the production adds to the somewhat bleak subject matter of Lucky.

“I had a two microphone setup in the room and every song was one take. I didn’t allow myself to go back and edit,” Rafferty said.

“I added piano and a few things a little later on, but the basic tracks were laid down once and never look back. I wanted the mistakes made.”

Rafferty was in a band, Pill Hill Radio, that recorded and toured briefly, and while he is proud of his work on that project, you can tell that he was committed to not over-producing himself this time around. Rafferty says he wrote more than two dozen songs in a six week cycle, cut about 12, and never looked back.

Lucky for him that he didn’t mess too much with perfection.  His Lucky is a fantastic collection of songs from a potent, tortured poet.

For more information on Rafferty, visit www.brooklynraff.com.

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